SALT LAKE CITY — In the days leading up to the midterm elections, President Donald Trump ramped up his rhetoric on immigration — calling the caravan an “invasion,” ordering 5,000 troops to the border, and vowing to end birthright citizenship — in an effort to fire up his base to get out and vote for GOP congressional and Senate candidates.
Did it work?
“It’s not clear that Trump’s end-of-the-campaign rhetoric about the caravan actually had any impact,” says John Sides, professor of political science at George Washington University.
While people’s views about immigration have become a stronger predictor of how they vote in both presidential and congressional elections, says Sides, most of those attitudes “appear to have been in place” before thousands of immigrants began their march from Honduras to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Other experts add that in states where immigration was an issue, Trump's strategy had mixed results, and with Democrats now controlling the House, nothing may get done to address the issue that exit polls indicated remains a top concern among voters.
Testing the theory
One study by Cornell University and the University of Chicago aimed to test whether the relationship between immigration attitudes and midterm vote intentions increased during the 2018 campaign season.
To do so, they conducted a national survey in which they asked the same respondents about their immigration attitudes and their vote intentions twice — once in early July, and again in late October.
Jonathan Paul Schuldt, a Cornell assistant professor who worked on the study, said the timing of the last round of the study was particularly telling, as the survey went into the field on Oct. 19 — just days after the migrant caravan was gathering steam and garnering media attention.
If the president’s rhetoric was having an effect on the immigration attitudes of likely voters, Schuldt told the Deseret News, their survey should have picked that up. It didn’t.
“Overall we didn’t see any shift in the immigration attitudes of likely voters,” he said. “Certainly we could not detect the day before the election any evidence that the president’s attitude was working in terms of shifting voting intention.”
But Schuldt says that doesn’t mean Trump’s immigration rhetoric had no effect.
“Trump was successful in putting the immigration on the minds of voters and especially his base,” says Schuldt.
Where it mattered
Indeed, exit polls indicated immigration was second only to health care in the minds of voters. Voter turnout was strong on election day, with more than 47 percent of the voting-eligible population casting a ballot — the highest turnout for a midterm since 1966.
Democrats intentionally avoided the immigration issue in the run-up to the election. A strategy memo co-authored by the Center for American Progress and Third Way — two Washington-based think tanks — recommended that Democrats in swing districts focus on issues that would better resonate with their voters, such as health care.
And that may have made a difference in certain races, such as Florida, where Republican Ron DeSantis is poised to beat Democrat Andrew Gillum in the Florida governor’s race — an election so close that they were still counting ballots and considering a recount on Friday. AP VoteCast found that 8 in 10 voters who were most concerned about immigration voted for DeSantis.
Heide Castaneda, associate professor at the University of South Florida, says she was surprised to see the issue of immigration have such a strong influence in her state, which is not as directly affected by border-related issues as others, such as Texas or Arizona.
“Overall I think Trump’s strategy was effective in that it made people fearful,” says Castaneda.
The immigration issue also played out in New Mexico, where voters elected the first Democratic Latina governor in the United States — Rep. Michell Lujan Grisham, who made a name for herself as one of President Trump’s strongest critics in Congress on immigration.
“We’re doing everything we can to stop the president and Homeland Security from continuing to enact pain using the terminology for zero tolerance for anybody breaking the law,” Grisham said in June, according to The Associated Press.
Grisham will replace Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who was initially a Trump critic but has since supported the president’s immigration agenda, sending National Guard troops to New Mexico’s border this year.
Other experts, such as Michael Cornfield, research director for the George Washington University Center for Political Management, say Trump’s rhetoric on immigration may have cost him politically, in the long run.
Cornfield says he was surprised that Trump spent the final days of the campaign talking about border security rather than the economy.
“Emphasizing the latter may have been more beneficial to Republican candidates such as (Utah Rep.) Mia Love,” he said.
Schuldt agrees, adding that with Democrats taking control of the House, it is not clear whether Trump and the GOP will be able to deliver in the way they have promised on immigration issues — such as the border wall, the zero-tolerance policy, the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals of DACA, and the cancellation of Temporary Protected Status for 300,000 foreign nations living in the United States.
“It could be that this strategy ends up backfiring on the GOP,” he says.
But, Castaneda points out that the president is “very fond of executive orders," so we could be seeing more of those in an attempt to circumvent congressional approval with the Democrats now in charge. President Barrack Obama used the same tactic in implementing the DACA policy.36 comments on this story
She says executive orders can be effective, but they are temporary and are vulnerable to being changed by subsequent administrations. For Castaneda, the temporary nature of executive orders “highlights the fact that this is political rhetoric, not long term, legally supported solutions to America’s complex immigration problem.”
Castaneda says this way of governing has a detrimental effect on immigrants living within the United States.
“These temporary and surprising, out-of-nowhere proclamations create a sense of uncertainty,” she says. “What we're missing is the impact this has on everyday lives, the sense of anxiety they have to live with everyday, the impact it has on people who are contributors to American society.”